Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto were going to make their meeting in Ottawa a symbolic show of a new, closer alliance, no matter how imperfect it really was. After years of distance or neglect between their countries, these two leaders have decided they need each other.
In the United States, the mood toward North American continentalism seems to be veering from disinterest to distaste. But both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Pena Nieto want to show they can bring benefits from warming relationships on the continent. Both want to diversify their international markets, and see their other NAFTA partner as an opportunity. And both want an ally in dealing with the United States – especially as Republican Donald Trump threatens an isolationist turn.
The Mexican President's visit hasn't been all smooth. Canada announced the lifting of the requirement for Mexican visitors to obtain visas, a bitter six-year-old irritant, but not till December, and with conditions. There was a note of dissonance when Mr. Trudeau expressed concern for human rights in a conflict with protesting teachers in southern Mexico – a matter Mr. Pena Nieto referred to as "a very domestic topic."
But Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Pena Nieto were determined to make the state visit about a renewed alliance, starting with the morning photo op of the two leaders jogging across the bridge to Gatineau.
The two have style points in common: Mr. Trudeau, 44, and Mr. Pena Nieto, 49, both portray themselves as generational change. At news-conference podiums outside the House of Commons, both looked like handsome figures stolen from wedding cakes, though Mr. Pena Nieto, half a head shorter, stood on a platform. They hit it off, according to aides, from their first meeting last year at the G20 summit.
Both also share a political interest in showing their countries moving together. The Mexican President spoke of "shared vision" five or six times. They signed 14 agreements, though mostly aspirational documents. Nine Canadian ministers joined six Mexican ministers, a big chunk of the Mexican cabinet, for talks.
That's new. Mexico and Canada have been tied together by the NAFTA since 1993, and trade grew, but both governments focused on the United States and did little about each other. Now, both want to diversify trade, and have common interests with the United States and concern for rising protectionism there. And there's Mr. Trump, who delivered a speech on trade Tuesday that declared NAFTA a "catastrophe."
Mr. Pena Nieto made an overture to Canada before, visiting Stephen Harper before the Mexican President's inauguration in 2012, but the dispute over visas turned relations bitter. Ordinary Mexicans felt the Canadian visas were an onerous barrier to keep them out, making it touchy politics for the President.
Mr. Trudeau campaigned promising to lift the visa immediately – he wanted to display a contrast with Mr. Harper by promising to warm ties with the United States and Mexico. But in office, he bowed to bureaucrats who warned that lifting the visa would lead to a spike in asylum claims. Now it won't be lifted until December, when Canada adopts an electronic travel authorization – a kind of visa-light – for foreign travellers. The Mexicans weren't thrilled, but the President declared victory. "We're here to renew the relationship that Canada and Mexico have, and we're clearing a way," he said.
And Mr. Trudeau, under pressure from activists to speak up about human rights, expressed concern about bloody clashes between police and protesting teachers in Mexico's southern states, saying, "it's important we move forward toward greater respect and defence of human rights." That's not usually the kind of topic foreign leaders want their counterparts to raise at a news conference – but it didn't deter the talk of renewal.
Mr. Trudeau declared victory, too. Lifting visas will bring in tourism dollars, he noted, and the Mexicans responded by opening their market to Canadian beef. The PM pointed to both as the benefits of warmer ties – contrasting it to the isolationist sentiments seen elsewhere, including south of the border. Whatever political affinity the two leaders share, it's that uncertainty about their shared U.S. neighbour that is binding them closer now.